Once the samurai have convened at the castle, Bayushi Kushiro dismisses the servants and leads them personally into dinner. His mempo is blood red, an otherwise featureless mask covering his mouth.
Once they are seated, the dinner set before them is plain but healthy, though there is less rice than what is normal. There are few frills and luxuries, and the servants who bring food and drink are silent but attentive, treating Kushiro with great deference—almost as though he is not merely a karo, but the actual daimyo. In the dining hall, there is only one other guest, a woman bearing the Bayushi mon: Bayushi Reiko. She stands to bow and smiles to Shio through her sheer veil, who stiffens a bit in recognition and belatedly returns the bow.
“A pleasure to see you again, Kitsune Shio,” Reiko says, her smile undiminished.
Shio returns the smile, inclining her head slightly. “A fortuitous crossing of paths once more, Bayushi-san.”
“A fortuitous crossing of paths, indeed. Are you, too, traveling to Ryoko Owari?” Reiko’s eyebrows tilt upward slightly.
“NO!” Atsu grunts.
“—Unfortunately.” Shio adds quickly.
“Ah, of course! Most unfortunate.” Reiko snaps her fan open, hiding her mouth from view. Nonetheless, there is a twinkle of something in her eyes—knowing, perhaps, or calculating. Shio blinks at Reiko like she’s been presented with a peacock; what on earth is she supposed to do with this?
Crow clears her throat. “Ah…no. Kitsune Mori.” She interjects as softly as possible. “We have a matter to attend to there.”
“Kitsune Mori?” Reiko looks to her. “And what matter is that?”
Crow takes a bite, chewing long enough to stall and collect a response. “To pay respects to a friend who has passed.”
“Ah, I see. My apologies.” Reiko takes a long pause, long enough to sip her sake. Gingerly. “What sort of friend?”
Shio tries to keep her eyes from darting around. “An old acquaintance of my family.” She replies as smoothly as she can.
Reiko looks to her, sated—for now, at least. She smiles and nods, then returns to eating, though the weight of her gaze remains on them.
At the head of the table, Torokai makes stilted small talk with Kushiro. He seems nervous, and there are long, silent pauses in their conversation. Eventually, Kushiro sighs and folds his hands, looking thoughtful and troubled. After a long moment, he speaks. “I wonder if I might seek your advice on a troublesome matter, samurai-san.”
Atsu tentatively picks up a piece of meat and chews deliberately while staring at him. Crow’s gaze follows so slowly it may be hard to tell if she is even moving. “What might that be, Bayushi-san?”
Kushiro’s posture is immaculately still. “Yesterday in the town, one of the local eta dropped a jar of waste he was carrying. It shattered and some of the contents landed on the feet of one of my guards. The guard, Bayushi Kota, naturally demanded that the eta apologize and clean his sandals.
“At that point, however, the story varies by the teller. Kota-san and one of his fellow guards claim the man was being insolent and refused to apologize. Some others who saw it, including two guards, claim the man was so terrified that his voice wouldn’t heed his mind. Kota-san drew his katana to threaten the eta, and at that point the eta’s daughter threw herself at Kota-san, attempting to keep him away from her father, begging for leniency.
“At that point the other guards in Kota-san’s patrol intervened, gathered everyone, and brought them to the castle for Tokai-sama’s judgment. Tokai-sama being indisposed, I had to deal with the matter, and after hearing the daughter’s story, Kotas-san’s story, and the witness’ story I made a decision.
“However, I have been wondering if it is the same decision Tokai-sama would have made in my place. For that matter, I have been wondering if other samurai would make the same decision in my place. Tell me, samurai-san, how would you have dealt with this situation, if the decision was yours?”
There is a collective silence from the samurai as they consider. Atsu purses his lips while he chews, but he’s still staring, while one of Daiyu’s eyes twitches very slightly. Ryojiro darts a glance at the others, his eyebrows furrowing in warning.
Crow clears her throat and speaks as though she is picking her words very, very carefully. “I would defer to the testament of the witnesses, I believe.” She bows in her seat, but is quick to add, “But I am only a ronin, after all.”
There is a long silence save the sound of Atsu chewing on the same bite.
Kushiro nods, though his eyes narrow slowly at her. It very nearly becomes an expression of recognition. “Yes,” he says with a smile, his voice as soft and even as ever, “A ronin.”
Atsu starts making intermittent “mmh” and “ghh” noises as he chews. He looks feverish.
Crow’s chopsticks pause halfway to her mouth and she glances at Kushiro, unable to keep her brow steady. She swallows down a look of confusion and finishes taking the bite.
“None of the villagers were nearby—there were no witnesses, you see. The sentries on the castle wall were too far away. What then?” Kushiro asks.
Atsu chews faster.
Crow takes another bite, avoiding eye contact. “Well,” she begins, lowering her chopsticks, “I would trust the word of the man at the mercy of the sword.” A tight, polite smile before she resumes eating.
Kushiro’s face goes a bit tight. The smile is equally so. “Ah, of course. Would you?” It’s not really a question. He looks to the others, then focuses on Ryojiro.”We do not see many of the Owl. Tell me—what would you do in your lands?”
Ryojiro smiles and puts on a face of thought and introspection. “In our lands, a situation like this would unfortunately differ. I’m afraid my answer of what we would do in our home might be inappropriate here. However, to answer your question…” He exhales, quietly. “…the likely response would be neither of the options presented. There would be shame and likely punishment for everyone involved in bringing the attention of the daimyo over such a matter. Anyone who would soil a person that should not be would be fully aware, and there would be quite a length of those who failed their duty to let this occur. We would all share blame for letting this situation arise.”
Ryojiro keeps his face as impassive as possible, trying not to let the “fuck you” slip out from behind his eyes.
Kushiro nods, looking thoughtful for a moment. He nods again. “I see. Thank you, Kitsuki-san.” He flattens his hands on the table with an air of finality. “I ordered that Kota-san should spend a day contemplating in the castle shrine, to remind him of all the tenets of a samurai’s life. I also arranged for a monk from the monastery up the road from here to come and help Kato-san cleanse himself from the impurity.”
He then takes a breath, calmly. “The girl I ordered to clean Kota-san’s soiled clothing and sandals, to clean the filth left from the shattered jar, and to apologize properly to Kota-san. The old man I required to apologize as well, though in his case this could not be an apology of words. You see, his daughter explained to me that when he was young, he suffered an illness that made his tongue and throat swell and prevented him from breathing. A local apothecary removed his tongue to save his life. The illness eventually passed… but it seems his tongue almost cost him his life, nonetheless.”
A small silence passes.
He delivers this answer with none of the uncertainty at the start of the conversation, that the question was posed for some other reason besides lack of confidence. “I apologize for presenting you with such a puzzle, samurai-san.”
“It is clear that your wisdom far surpasses my own, then.” Crow’s laugh is forced and weak. Ryojiro nods approvingly.
Kushiro smiles. “Tell me—will you walk with me? In the castle gardens.”
Ryojiro nods, speaking for the group. “Of course.”
Atsu finally swallows the morsel he has pulverized with his teeth, and tries to keep his lips from curling back.
Bayushi Kushiro smiles. There is a lingering look of recognition when his eyes pass over Crow, but he bows his head and stands slowly, servants quickly filling in the space to clean and wipe down the table.
Kushiro bows his head to Reiko. “We will speak later, Reiko-san. I thank you for your attendance.” Reiko bows and wordlessly takes her leave while the rest of them make their way outside.
The gardens of the small castle are a tiny plot of raked gravel and sculpted shrubs surrounding a pair of cherry trees tucked into a side corner of the courtyard. Kushiro regards the more wilted cherry for some time, his hands folded behind his back, before speaking.
“As you may have noticed, our lands labor under some… strange problems. The peasants have become quite fearful. It is difficult for them to perform their tasks. Many of them blame their troubles on a supposed monk, passing through here on the way to a monastery. I realize it would be an imposition, but would it be possible for you to go and—inquire about this monk? Unfortunately I cannot spare my own bushi from their duties, and I apologize for asking such a minor task. If your own needs are too urgent, I will of course understand.” He grants them a small smile.
Ryojiro spends a moment to politely consider. “While I feel honor-bound to accompany these fellow samurai, my schooling and expertise are in the investigation of such matters. I would be honored to look into this matter for you if we have the time.”
Kushiro nods, bowing deeply in response. “I thank you for your assistance, samurai-san. The monastery is not far.”
From Beiden, the tiny monastery is about six hours worth of travel, though it is thankfully less on horseback. The road is a small, narrow dirt path that is seems lightly used, winding through lands that are only sparsely populated. The occasional peasant stares at the sight of samurai passing by, but they are quick to prostrate themselves as needed. The weather is clear after the previous day’s torrential rain. Ahead, the mountains loom higher and higher, filling the sky.
Perched atop a low hill is a small monastery: a complex of buildings surrounding a low, two-story pagoda temple. A worn-down staircase made of wooden logs laid into hard-packed earth ascends to the table. Beyond, an abandoned and overgrown road leads on.
It is a modest monastery, and the number of monks in residence seems fairly low: perhaps 30 or so. Aside from the temple, barracks, bath house, and store houses, the only structure of note is a small winery. A sizable plum tree orchard is behind it, covering most of the hill.
The monks here become flustered and excited at the sight of visitors, let alone samurai, obviously accustomed to isolation. They hurry about, bowing and smiling anxiously. Eventually, a graying, important-looking monk steps forward, supporting himself on a gnarled cane. He bows low. “How may I assist you, honorable samurai? You have come far to this place.”
Crow bows respectfully to the elder monk, a tired smile on her face. “We are honored to be received into your monastery.” She pauses with uncertainty for a moment. “Unfortunately, we do not come under pleasant tidings… we have been sent on behalf of the karo of Beiden.” There’s a pained expression on her face.
Ryojiro pipes in. “Yes, we have heard a monk bound for your monastery may not have been treated fully with the kindness and respect due to him on his way here, and we wish to see if there is a way to restore the honor and dignity of all who were involved.” He bows his head. “As such, we came out of concern for your brotherhood. We do not wish to impose, but is there more we could know?”
The monk looks between all of them, his eyebrows coming together in concern. “Ah, yes, Fuzen. Oh dear. What has he done this time?” The other monks shuffle their feet and lower their eyes.
Shio blinks at the monk. “Has he… been a cause for concern before?”
Daiyu tries to act casually; her success is debatable. “There seem to be those there who believe, as ridiculous as it sounds, that he has stolen from their granary.”
The monk nods, slowly, and rubs his temples before stepping delicately around such a topic. “Fuzen is… perhaps not as dedicated to enlightenment as he should be.”
Crow frowns with some degree of empathy in her expression. “Some of the villagers say that he has…well, that he has cursed the village.”
The monk nods, slowly. “Ah. Forgive me, samurai-sama. I am called Jotei. I quite doubt that Fuzen is capable of placing a curse upon anything—well, a magical curse, that is. He certainly tosses out angry oaths when he has indulged in too much plum wine.”
Ryojiro hums to himself. “Yes, it does sound very strange, and beyond the ability of a simple monk. Very serious allegations to level over superstition. Could we talk to him and see if there is any way we could smooth over these troubles?”
Jotei’s smile is pained. “Ah, yes, of course. He is… well. One of the younger monks saw him in the orchard this morning when they were collecting plums.”
Crow smiles and bows. “Thank you. We will be quick with our business, I assure you.”
Jotei bows and smiles in return, beckoning one of the younger monks to lead them onward. The young man, flustered and curious, bows to them repeatedly before starting toward the grove of ume trees beyond the monastery where Fuzen awaits.